In the great pantheon of video game genres, it’s common for different types of game to find themselves mixed up to varying levels of effectiveness. Portal combined puzzles and platforming, while The Legend of Zelda blends action and adventure games to create a compelling and entertaining experience. But while most genre combinations can be made to work, Rune Factory’s mix of farming simulators (specifically Harvest Moon) and fantasy JRPGs has always seemed odd and it’s even more amazing that it’s managed to survive for four instalments.
Mind you, that’s only just – the game was originally released way back in July 2012 to Japanese audiences, with an English release in Europe promised but not ultimately delivered until this December (and even then only online). Still, somehow, it works relatively well.
The farming’s basic setup differs little from classic Harvest Moon – you have an area available in which to grow crops, which must be cleared of junk, planted and watered before selling the produce via some kind of magic commercial box. But this does not form the bulk of the game, which is instead taken up with Prince/Princess duties.
Part of the game’s setup is that the main character, following a fall from an airship, must take on the powers and responsibilities of a regent of the kingdom. They are tasked with carrying out tasks for the townsfolk like a glorified social worker, but more glamorously can arrange festivals and oversee the defence of the realm. In typical JRPG fashion, much hinges on equipment and the action-focused combat employs the rather charming old feature of characters losing numbers from their heads when hit.
There’s plenty to do between the quests and farming, and players who were content with the rural serenity of Harvest Moon will be well served by what’s on offer here. It doesn’t do a huge amount that’s fresh or exciting, but after so many games innovation in any meaningful way was going to be difficult – what’s important is that what’s there is generally polished and works well, if frustrated somewhat by a fairly simple control scheme adding unnecessary button presses.
The game is presented as a series of pre-rendered 2D backdrops interacted with by 3D polygonal sprites. This is less of a good idea, since the two styles clash quite badly and at its worst points comes across as very cheap. It’s a shame, given how nice the 2D backdrops can be, that they didn’t choose to employ sprites for the characters. It would have saved the artists effort, and looked rather charming to boot.
One small issue with Rune Factory 4 is that it seems to have a hard time deciding on a tone. While it takes great care in its artwork and writing to seem to fit in with the usual trappings of the fantasy genre, it can’t resist a massive level of kookiness, embodied best by one of the earliest scenes in the game, in which the character falls from an airship onto an enormous, benevolent, sentient dragon with royal status.
However, there’s an addictive quality to it despite the eclectic tone. Great satisfaction is gained by successfully shipping a box full of veggies, and each skill’s level up brings a slight adrenaline rush as you realise you can hit harder, run faster or water plants more efficiently than before. Is it bizarre? Yes. But it’s also a world in which it’s possible to get completely invested.
As an overall package, Rune Factory 4 contains a surprising amount and is guaranteed to keep fans of the series occupied for some time. There’s a lot here for newcomers too, but it can be a little difficult to get into at times, and a rather out-there story premise might be off-putting to the less adventurous among you.